It’s no secret that exercise gives a big boost to your mental health. And the good news is that it really doesn’t have to be a huge amount of exercise to have a positive impact. Any small amount of movement or activity can help to alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety and other conditions.
Mental health problems include a broad spectrum of disorders, each with varying degrees of severity. Whilst I always advocate speaking to your GP, you might well find that including daily movement goes a long way to reducing your symptoms, if you are suffering from low mood, or mild anxiety, for example. With more severe cases, of course it’s imperative that you are receiving the medical care you need, be that medication, counselling, CBT or a combination of all these. But exercise is still hugely beneficial as an addition to your treatment.* Not only does exercise release a load of lovely endorphins, serotonin and dopamine (your feel good hormones), it can also help you to sleep better, which in turn is linked to better mental health.
So how do we go about incorporating activity when it’s probably the last thing you feel like doing?
1. One of the most helpful things is to move away from the mindset that it needs to be a “formal” exercise session, or an hour of hard activity. In fact, very intense or long duration workouts can actually add more stress to an already overloaded mind and body. Whereas shorter and / or low intensity exercise will lower blood-pressure and calm the mind. Remember also that every little bit counts, whether it’s simply walking to the shops, doing a five-minute mini workout at home, or taking up a meditation practice.
2. Do something that you enjoy! What might bring a smile to your face? What used to make your soul sing? If you love your garden, just spending a few minutes outside watering the plants or weeding daily will give you a great sense of accomplishment, and reap rewards. Perhaps you used to dance in your childhood… Why not put the tunes on and see if you can find it within you to just move your body to the music when nobody’s watching? Remembering what makes you tick can be the key to getting going again, and if you’re enjoying yourself in the process, you’re far more likely to make it a regular occurrence.
3. You knew I was going to say this, but the evidence for spending time in nature and the link with improved mental health is incontrovertible. Being outdoors in nature nourishes the soul and is such a great way to heal yourself. If you are at a point where the very thought of heading outside is too much, can you recruit a walking buddy to encourage you out, or at the very least sit outside in your garden? As a fitness coach who runs group sessions, both outside and inside, you might be surprised to hear me say that I don’t always recommend joining a group class. Whilst the camaraderie can be great, if you’re suffering from low self-esteem, it can be extremely daunting venturing into a group setting, especially in a gloomy gym. Especially when some days it’s hard enough just to get out of bed. So instead, aim to spend a little bit of time outside daily, if you possibly can. You won’t regret it.
*(I hope it goes without saying that I am in no way advocating exercise in lieu of any medication you might have already been prescribed. Please always speak to your GP, or whoever’s care you are under, before changing any prescriptions).